Brilliance may seem like trait immune to bias: When a person can prove their intellectual talents, they earn the label. But like nearly every other label in society, brilliance is also subject to stereotyping. Lin Bian, a psychology PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, wanted to see what factors determine how likely a person is to be viewed as a "genius" or "brilliant" instead of somebody who simply works hard.
A primary factor? Gender. "Stereotypes are all about innate ability—who has it and who doesn't," says New York University psychologist Andrei Cimpian, who has collaborated on multiple large-scale surveys on how people stereotype brilliance. "Our culture does associate brilliance more with males than females."
In one survey that examined more than 14 million reviews on RateMyProfessors.com, Cimpian and colleagues found that students were more likely to characterize their professors using the words “brilliant” and “genius” in fields that had less women and black professors (physics, math or philosophy, for example). A likely reason, he and colleagues found in 2015, is that women discourage themselves from entering these fields because of the stereotype that men are best able to succeed in them.
"Evidence for this association is all around us," Bian says, pointing to the plethora of TV shows depicting male "genius" protagonists such as Sherlock, compared to the relative dearth of shows featuring similar female characters.
These stereotypes can hold back even the women who do venture into these fields. A 2007 analysis of letters of recommendation for a science faculty position found that men were more likely to be described with "standout adjectives” that implied genius was their strength, Meanwhile, women were more likely to be described with "grindstone adjectives" that implied that work ethic was more responsible for their success.
These perceptions from potential employers and superiors have real-life effects: They can harm the chances of women to advance in academia and the workforce. "If we want to change young people's minds and make things more equitable for girls, we really need to know when this problematic stereotype first emerges," says Bian.
In a study published yesterday in the journal Science, Bian and Cimpian set out to pinpoint exactly when this stereotype becomes engrained in the minds of young women. They focused on an impressionable age group: Girls from 5 to 7 years old. "It's an age when there's a lot of social learning going on," Cimpian says.
To get around the fact that young children would likely have a hard time grasping the nuances of the words "brilliant" or "genius," the researchers designed a series of exercises to gauge the stereotypes that might be lurking in their minds.
In one exercise, nearly 200 children listened to a story that described a "really, really smart" protagonist, with no hints about that person's gender. They were then asked to guess whether the protagonist was male or female. Boys and girls around age 5 usually guessed their own gender, Bian says, lead author of the study. But by age 6 and 7, the results were already shifting.
While boys continued to mostly guess that the protagonist was a male, girls were now much more likely to also guess that the "really, really smart" person they'd read about was a boy.
Another task presented two invented games to 200 more children, with one being described as for children who are "really, really smart," while the other was said to be for kids who "try really, really hard." At age 5, girls and boys showed no significant difference in which game they were most interested in. But again, by ages 6 and 7, girls were much more likely than boys to gravitate to the game for children who try hard.
(Interestingly, however, when the girls and boys were asked to guess who made the best grades from a group of girls and boys, the children of all ages guessed their own gender. In other words, the children viewed achievement differently from brilliance. “It speaks to how disconnected from objective evidence these stereotypes are,” Cimpian says.)
All of these subtle, even unconscious self-stereotypes add up. "Over time, even these very small decisions, they can snowball into larger differences," Cimpian says.
There are myriad factors in a child’s upbringing that drive these stereotypes. But parents certainly play a large role, says Cimpian.
"Even though parents may not explicitly endorse these stereotypes, they're nevertheless part of this culture," he says. He cites a informal experiment published in the New York Times in 2014, in which an economist looked at anonymous Google search data to find that parents were much more likely to ask Google about their sons being a genius than their daughters, and were much more likely to ask Google about whether their daughters were overweight or ugly than their sons.
These parental beliefs can manifest in many ways, says University of Surrey psychologist Harriet Tenenbaum, who was not involved in the study. For example, research Tenenbaum published in 2009 found that parents were much more likely to use discouraging comments with their daughters than their sons in regards to academics. Teachers also play a role, Tenenbaum says, citing the fact that girls' views began to shift around age 6—just when schooling becomes more intense and academic.
"Parents and teachers need to be more aware of the language they use with children if they want girls to be more interested in domains like science," she says.
Catherine Hill, head of research for the American Association of University Women, agrees that parents can and should play a more supportive role for their young daughters. Encouraging them to build, play sports, and even play more with boys all help girls develop a healthier mindset about their own abilities, she says.
"It's not nature, it's nurture," Hill says, citing her organization's 2010 research report on why so few women enter STEM fields (two of the main reasons: society’s biases against women in science and a lack of support from universities).
Cimpian says he and his team are working now to create a longitudinal study that would closely follow a large group of children from ages 5 to 7, and keep track of everything from the composition of their classrooms, to what kinds of media they're exposed to, to their parents' views on gender. This study would seek to pinpoint how best parents and experts can intervene to stop these toxic attitudes from developing.
"We really need to find the sources of these stereotypes," Bian says.